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[CAIRO] Arab countries are expected to adopt a region-wide ban on both reproductive and 'therapeutic' human cloning — the use of cloned human embryos for research into disease treatment — within the coming months.

Last week, a committee of legal experts representing the ministries of justice of Arab states discussed the text of a draft treaty on 'the interdiction of human cloning' during a five-day meeting at the Arab League headquarters in Cairo, Egypt.

The legal experts, who exchanged views on the proposed text with geneticists, healthcare ethics experts and Islamic scholars, recommended establishing an Arab treaty that would create a legislative framework for controlling cloning practices, filling the legal vacuum that currently exists.

It is expected that the treaty will be finalised and approved before the United Nations re-opens discussion on a global treaty, known as the International Convention against the Reproductive Cloning of Human Beings, in September 2005.

Under the proposed treaty, all member states of the Arab League would agree to implement legislation banning both forms of human cloning. The creation of human embryos solely for research purposes, and the transfer of nuclear genetic materials to human cells with the aim of creating human beings at any developmental stage would also be outlawed.

Several religious groups strongly oppose the idea of human cloning, both for reproductive and therapeutic purposes. "The international community should stand up to the heresy of … human cloning which ... violates divine laws," says Muslim World League secretary-general Abdullah bin Abdul Mohsen Al-Turki.

There is also opposition within parts of the medical community. Ali Khalifa, for example, professor of medicine at Cairo's Ain Shams University, says that fully-fledged use of cloning technology is prohibited because of dangers it poses "to the human personality, human dignity and honor, and human family and society".

According to Khalifa, there is no justification for cloning human embryos and then killing them to extract stem cells for therapeutic purposes, as some scientists are already doing. "[This is] murder in the name of scientific advancement," he says.

Any joint decision by members of the Arab League is likely to have a significant impact on the discussion on a global ban that will take place next year. Last November, it was the delegation of Iran, acting on behalf of the member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, that proposed an adjournment on discussion of the proposed global treaty within the United Nations.

The Cairo meeting also called for the launch of a regional dialogue and debate on healthcare ethics — including human cloning — through conferences and symposia at the Arab and international levels.